In Time of Crisis, Orthodox Support for Israel is Vocal — and Personal
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In Time of Crisis, Orthodox Support for Israel is Vocal — and Personal

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This past Shabbat, as is the custom at his synagogue, Rabbi Chaim Shapiro called several individuals from the congregation to join him on the bimah as he made kiddush. Among them was Yonatan Blush, whose grandparents are congregants at Congregation Torah Ohr in Boca Raton, Fla.

Even as fighting along Israel’s northern border intensified, Blush was getting ready to leave the safety of Palm Beach County on Monday and return to Israel for induction into the army, and Shapiro wanted to wish him well.

The timing of Blush’s move was unusual — fighting in Israel is at its worst in a decade — but the synagogue’s tight connection to Israel was not.

“Many of us have either children or relatives there in Israel,” Shapiro said of his congregation, which is made up largely of retirees. “It’s on our minds. We’re very concerned about it.”

Shapiro himself has two grandchildren who recently returned from yeshivas in Israel and are planning to go back in August. Another granddaughter is becoming bat mitzvah in Jerusalem next month, and Shapiro will be flying over in two weeks.

“I’m a little nervous,” he admitted.

While the fighting has generated strong support for Israel across the American Jewish religious spectrum, with several rallies drawing truly interdenominational participation, some observers say the Orthodox are overrepresented among those taking a vocal stand.

“I think that Orthodox Jews are probably disproportionately involved in these kinds of activities because of their own personal connection with Israel,” said Jonathan Sarna, a Brandeis University expert on the American Jewish community. Plus, he noted, “the Orthodox community tends to be very well-organized in terms of schools and camps and synagogues that can turn people out.”

The Orthodox have turned to prayer in hopes that the power of communal supplication not only will turn things Israel’s way but will offer a spiritual salve to those praying during a difficult time.

“We’re going to be on a prayer alert until the violence is over and the campaign is finished,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for the fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel of America. This level of activity among the Orthodox, he added, “has not been seen for years.”

“From our perspective as believing Jews, we see it as demanding of us a response of the heart,” he said.

Rabbi Yossi Lew, associate rabbi of Chabad’s Congregation Beth Tefillah in Atlanta, said prayer has been an important part of his shul’s response to the situation. He also has directed congregants to the Bible for historical insight into Israel’s enemies.

In his Shabbat sermon, Lew compared Hezbollah to the Amalekites, who attacked the Children of Israel after they left Egyptian slavery. In the Torah, Israel is instructed to destroy the nation of Amalek and blot out its memory.

“The message is that you cannot deal with people who hate you so blindly that they attack you for no reason whatsoever,” Lew recounted saying in the sermon. “The only way one is able to live in peace and pursue peace is by eliminating that which stops a person from living — a hatred that does not want you to live. Hezbollah does not want the Jewish people to live.”

“It’s about time we stand up to the word that doesn’t care about Jewish blood, and we declare that Jewish blood is not free. Jewish blood must be defended,” he said.

Aguda has called on constituents to intensify their prayers for Israel, suggesting particular psalms to be said and asking that Jews reinvigorate their general observance by arriving at morning prayer services on time and giving charity.

On Sunday, an hour in the afternoon was designated as a time for psalm recitation at Aguda’s camps, synagogues and yeshivas. It was an unusual call, especially at yeshivas, where students usually are left alone to study.

On July 19, some 2,000 Jews came together to pray for Israel’s well-being at an overflowing Yeshiva Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn. They prayed the afternoon service, then heard from Aguda head Rabbi Yaakov Perlow — who, Shafran said, called on Jews to “repair their relationship with God and fellow men in this time of travail.”

At the end, participants recited the same verses with which Yom Kippur worship ends.

Similar services and calls for prayer and reflection are being seen among Orthodox throughout the United States. On the front page of its Web site (, the National Council of Young Israel offers “special prayers” for Israel, Israeli soldiers missing in action, the Israeli army and Jonathan Pollard, the U.S. Navy analyst imprisoned for spying for Israel.

The Orthodox Union, along with the Rabbinical Council of America and the National Council of Young Israel, issued a call July 19 for a simultaneous recitation of psalms at 9 p.m. David Olivestone, the O.U.’s director of communications, said that 400 people turned out to take part at Teaneck, N.J.’s Rinat Shalom synagogue alone.

We “believe that the power of a united community might have more of an inspirational, spiritual effect, with everybody calling out to God at the same moment,” he said.

For those who could not make it to their synagogues, the O.U.’s executive vice president, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, led an online service that included the reading of psalms and a d’var Torah, or sermon, on the subject of war.

The nine days leading into the holy day of Tisha B’Av — when Jews mark the destruction of the holy temples in Jerusalem — begin July 25. The O.U., RCA, Young Israel and Yeshiva University have called for round-the-clock Torah study during this period of reflection.

The New York-based Yeshiva University has opened the doors of its Jerusalem campus to Israelis fleeing fighting in the North. The school’s apartments, dormitories and facilities are being offered to alumni and others in need of relocation.

Organizations and individual synagogues have begun raising money to aid Israelis in need. And they haven’t been scared away from Israel by the fighting.

Olivestone is not only a spokesman for the union, but the parent of a teenage daughter who spent last year learning in a Jerusalem yeshiva and plans to return in the fall. With all the fighting going on in northern and southern Israel, Olivestone, who also has a son and two brothers living in Israel, is “not worried at all” for his daughter, because Jerusalem, which in the past has been a flashpoint in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, has been quiet of late.

“My wife has expressed a little more concern,” he said.

But keeping his daughter away “would be what our enemies would like us to do: for those who aren’t there to stay away and those who are to leave the country,” he said. “But we can’t give in to that.”

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